Daniel Murphy

As Cubs begin second half, the Ben Zobrist Question hangs over this team

As Cubs begin second half, the Ben Zobrist Question hangs over this team

There are no shortage of questions surrounding the Cubs as the All-Star Break comes to a close and the second half of the MLB season kicks off.

But maybe the most important query is the status of Ben Zobrist and if/when he'll return to this team.

Of course, baseball is a team sport and one player cannot have such a be-all, end-all impact. That being said, it's probably not a coincidence the Cubs are just 28-30 since Zobrist was first scratched from the May 7 game for personal issues.

More than two months have passed since that day and while nothing is guaranteed, it's looking more and more like Zobrist will once again don a Cubs uniform at some point this year.

"We expect him back later in the year," Theo Epstein said last weekend on the South Side. "We have a sort of a soft understanding of when that might be, but I don't want to put a timetable on it or overly rely on it, either. I think we're all looking forward to having him back if that's able to happen."

Epstein's tone about the ordeal changed over the last few weeks, as it initially seemed like Zobrist's stay on the restricted list could last the remainder of the season. 

So assuming Zobrist will return this year, when might fans see him in a Cubs uniform again?

He hasn't seen live pitching in 66 days as of this writing and it would take a long time for anybody to get back into game shape after that layoff, let alone a 38-year-old switch-hitter who has to work on his swing from both sides of the plate. 

Even if Zobrist was at Wrigley Field this weekend declaring his plan to return, he would likely need at least a few weeks down in Arizona and the minor leagues.

We'll see how the next month or so plays out, but it's hard to envision Zobrist returning to Chicago before late August.

"Of course on the surface, it definitely sounds [as if he's returning]," Joe Maddon said. "When you lay it out from not playing for a bit, you don't know exactly what to expect. I think the presence alone — no question — provides an emotional lift. Then after that, you just need performance. I don't know what he's been doing.

"I'm very aware of time off and then what it means for a guy to come back on and try to perform at that level. Major-league players have been playing all summer. They're rocking and rolling and they're up to speed. Now, Zo is a quick study — I know that. I don't know what to expect except that I would say for certain the presence alone would be uplifting."

It's impossible to quantify the impact of one player, much like it's unknown how much of an effect a manager truly has on a team's wins and losses.

But at this point, Zobrist's return could be viewed similarly to the trade for Daniel Murphy last August — adding an experienced veteran bat into the lineup who can provide an impact beyond simply the numbers on the back of his baseball card.

Before he went on leave, Zobrist was hitting just .241 with a .596 OPS, including only 1 extra-base hit — a double — in 99 plate appearances. However, he did have more walks (14) than strikeouts (12) and the Cubs believe the off-field personal issues were weighing on his mind all spring and could've been affecting his play.

Even when Zobrist isn't hitting, he's still able to provide the Cubs with another steady, professional at-bat on a consistent basis while also playing multiple defensive positions and able to hit anywhere in the order. Then there's his penchant for coming through in the clutch and his calming presence inside the locker room.

Still, Zobrist's impact can only go so far and even amid one of the best offensive seasons of his career last year, he couldn't pull the Cubs out of their second-half rut.

"I think we do miss Ben, but I don't want to put it all on that," Epstein said. "We do miss him in the clubhouse. He's such a pro and such a veteran and a guy people would turn to when things were going fast because he's sort of seen it all, done it all. But I also think just the consistent quality at-bat, especially because we would tend to match him up against a lot of quality pitchers — guys who can really elevate a good, quality four-seam fastball. 

"It's a tough pitch for our group — and all of baseball in a lot of ways — but he always handled that pitch really well. So it was just nice to be able to — three or four times a week — when you face a guy like that, know that he was gonna grind that guy and turn around a heater and have good at-bats. 

"There have been plenty of days where you look at the lineup and you miss that. But I don't want to make the [team's recent sloppy play] connection to one guy."

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The definitive team of modern-day Cub Killers

The definitive team of modern-day Cub Killers

As the Cubs limp into Crosstown weekend and the All-Star Break, the list of Cub Killers continues to grow.

Josh Bell and Adam Frazier absolutely annihilated Cubs pitching over the four-game series in Pittsburgh this week:

Bell

6-for-15, 4 HR, 11 RBI

Frazier

10-for-15, 1 HR, 6 RBI

Though, to be fair, Bell is hammering everybody this year:

Maybe this one series was enough to notch a spot on the modern-day Cub Killers team, especially for Frazier. They also have a teammate to make the cut, though he didn't play against the Cubs this week in Pittsburgh.

A quick note before we get into it: We only included current players who would not be heralded as superstars, but certainly appear like they're Hall of Famers whenever they're facing the Cubs.

Yes, Paul Goldschmidt and Ryan Braun and Albert Pujols show out against the Cubs, but they've also had very, very good careers and have posted strong numbers against many teams.

The guys on this team are solid players, no doubt, but they always seem to find another level when facing the Cubs, even in a small sample size:

C — Francisco Cervelli
1B — Daniel Murphy
2B — Ozzie Albies
3B — Asdrubal Cabrera
SS — Orlando Arcia
LF — Rajai Davis
CF — Billy Hamilton
RF — Phillip Ervin
DH — Nomar Mazara
SP — Ivan Nova

Look at that team. That is not a lineup of All-Stars by any means, but there is no doubt they would easily sweep the Cubs in any series from April to October.

Check out each guy's individual case:

Francisco Cervelli

Career stats vs. Cubs: .290/.363/.470 (.833 OPS), 7 HR, 38 RBI
Career stats at Wrigley Field: .309/.367/.536 (.903 OPS), 6 HR, 30 RBI

The Cubs lucked out in that they didn't have to contend with Cervelli during their recent four-game series in Pittsburgh and they may not have to face him next weekend coming out of the All-Star Break, either. The veteran catcher is still dealing with concussion-like symptoms, which is scary considering he was first placed on the IL on May 26.

But when Cervelli has suited up against the Cubs, he has an .833 OPS — which is essentially Willson Contreras' career line (.828 OPS).

The numbers take an even bigger jump when Cervelli is playing the Cubs at Wrigley Field. In 30 starts at "The Friendly Confines," he has 30 RBI while hitting .309 with a .903 OPS. So in other words, he becomes Mike Piazza (career .308 AVG, .922 OPS) when facing Cubs pitchers on Chicago's North Side.

Daniel Murphy

Career stats vs. Cubs: .341/.377/.574 (.951 OPS)
Career stats at Wrigley Field: .364/.397/.594 (.991 OPS)

Even a lobotomy wouldn't help Cubs fans forget about Murphy's insane stretch in the 2015 NLCS. He hit .529 with a 1.850 OPS in those four games, including 4 homers and 6 RBI. Now imagine rolling those stats into the above career line for Murphy against the Cubs.

Following along with the old adage that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, the Cubs acquired Murphy last August in a waiver deal and he was a solid presence in their lineup for the final six weeks of the season. 

But then he signed with the Rockies over the winter and has continued his Cub Killing ways this year, going 9-for-17 (.529 AVG) with a homer and 5 RBI in 4 games against the Cubs this season.

Ozzie Albies

Career stats vs. Cubs: .456/.519/.809 (1.328 OPS)

Joe Maddon summed it up simply as the Cubs closed out a four-game set with the Braves last week at Wrigley Field: "The guy just hits us."

Albies is a very nice young player who has inflicted his fair share of damage against everybody over his first couple years in the big leagues. But he just takes his game to another level against Cubs pitching — which includes 13 extra-base hits (7 doubles, 5 homers, 1 triple), 13 RBI and 14 runs in 17 games.

Asdrubal Cabrera

Career stats vs. Cubs: .286/.316/.629 (.944 OPS)
Career stats at Wrigley Field: .389/.400/.444 (.844 OPS)

Maybe an odd choice given he hasn't played the Cubs a ton in his career (only 18 starts in his 13 MLB seasons), but he has 7 homers and 12 RBI in that span. 

That includes a heck of a series in Texas to open 2019 when the veteran switch-hitter clubbed 2 homers and drove in 5 runs in the three games as the Cubs began the year 1-2. 

Cabrera was also a thorn in the Cubs' side while he was with the Mets, hitting 4 homers in 9 games between 2016-17.

Orlando Arcia

This one hasn't been going on as long and the career stats aren't worth mentioning for Arcia. But he has been a huge issue dating back to last Oct. 1, when the light-hitting shortstop went 4-for-4 and scored the winning run in Game 163 at Wrigley Field.

That's carried over into the 2019 season, as the Brewers shortstop is hitting .421 with a .542 on-base percentage and 1.121 OPS in 6 games against the Cubs this year. 

This from a guy who has a career .249 batting average and .668 OPS...

Rajai Davis

Career stats vs. Cubs: .302/.348.512 (.859 OPS)...and one VERY big World Series dinger

Davis is also hitting .500 with a 1.328 OPS at Wrigley Field, but has made only 4 starts there in his long career.

In general, he hasn't played against the Cubs much (only 5 regular-season starts since 2010) but he's only put up a better line against three other MLB teams over his 14 years in the game. And his performance against the Cubs in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series might be enough to etch Davis' name in Cub Killer lore forever.

Billy Hamilton

Career stats vs. Cubs: .276/.350/.393 (.743 OPS), 39 stolen bases
Career vs. everybody else: .239/.285/.320 (.605 OPS)

You could make a serious case that the Cubs are the main reason Hamilton has had a big-league job over the last 7 years. When a guy is struggling to put up a .600 OPS against the rest of the league, you know he's going through and circling every game on the calendar against the only team he consistently produces against. 

Ditto if Jon Lester happened to be starting that game for the Cubs. In his career against the veteran southpaw (24 at-bats), Hamilton is hitting .333/.407/.667 (1.074 OPS).

Phil Ervin

Career stats vs. Cubs: .314/.364/.608 (.971 OPS), 4 HR, 12 RBI
Career stats vs. everybody else: .250/.302/.390 (.692 OPS), 7 HR, 35 RBI

Another Reds outfielder and another guy who may not even still be in the big leagues if not for how often he plays the Cubs. Every other fanbase in baseball might read Ervin's name and ask, "Who?!" But Cubs fans know all too well.

The 26-year-old outfielder has hit 36 percent of his career homers against Cubs pitching, including a solo shot last Friday in Cincinnati. He then came back Sunday and drove in Yasiel Puig twice with a pair of bloop hits to put the game out of reach and send the Cubs on a four-game losing streak. 

Nomar Mazara

There's not much of a sample size and you could make the case any of the other hitters should be in this spot over Nomar Mazara including Randal Grichuk. Grichuk hasn't played the Cubs since 2017 and Mazara has only had three good games against Joe Maddon's bunch in his career, but that was enough.

As the Cubs opened their "Year of Reckoning" in Texas in March, Mazara hit a 2-run homer in Game 1, drew 4 walks in Game 2 and then collected a clutch 2-run triple in Game 3 as the Rangers won each of the last two contests. 

Jeff McNeil also would've been a fair choice here, since he had a huge four-game series against the Cubs at Wrigley a couple weeks ago (6-for-14, 6 RBI), but he's also hit everybody early in his career (.340 AVG through his first 136 games).

Ivan Nova

Nova's career line against the Cubs isn't much to write home about (4-2, 3.75 ERA, 1.15 WHIP in nine starts), but the players have continually talked about how they've struggled against him in the past. Kris Bryant even brought it up unprompted last month as Nova — now with the White Sox — spun a gem against the Cubs at Wrigley Field in Game 1 of the Crosstown series.

Brewers right-hander Jhoulys Chacin would also be a nice call here, as he's held the Cubs to a 1.57 ERA in six starts over the last two seasons. However, he's actually only 2-3 in that stretch as the Cubs have found a way to beat him even when he's pitched well.

Honorable mentions

Yadier Molina

Cubs fans have seen the future Hall of Fame catcher come up with some really big plays against their team for the last decade-plus and the numbers back it up — his 105 RBI vs. Cubs is second only to the 108 RBI he has against the Reds. 

Randal Grichuk

He has a career .296/.335/.638 slashline (.974 OPS) against Cubs pitching along with 11 homers and 33 RBI in 37 career starts. But the Cubs will hardly have to face Grichuk moving forward now that he makes his home in Toronto.

Nick Markakis

In two of the last three years, Markakis has worn out Cubs pitching (1.008 OPS in 2017, 1.110 OPS in 2019) but he also sported just a .625 OPS in 2018 sandwiched in between. He also has 10 RBI in only 7 games against the Cubs this year and may well have a chance to add to that total if his Braves meet the North Siders in October.

Lorenzo Cain

Another guy who's been really good against many teams — Cain has a career .320 batting average and .844 OPS against the Cubs, but he's also a career .289 hitter over his 10 years in baseball. 

Neil Walker

One of the original Cub Killers, Walker would probably have been on this team a few years ago. But he's hardly played against the Cubs over the last few seasons and even when he has, the veteran infielder hasn't come up with too many big hits.

New MLB rule will affect Cubs in 2019 and beyond

New MLB rule will affect Cubs in 2019 and beyond

Don't expect the Cubs to make another Daniel Murphy trade in August this season.

Not only because Murphy's new team — the Colorado Rockies — are expected to be contenders all year, but also because Major League Baseball now has a rule in place forbidding August deals, as The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal is reporting.

The waiver trades were among the most confusing transactions in American sports, so things will certainly be simpler for fans (and reporters) to understand. From now on, all trades will be completed only before July 31 and we won't ever have to hear the words "non-waiver deadline" again. 

The Cubs acquired Murphy on Aug. 21 last year when the veteran hitter passed through waivers, allowing the Washington Nationals to dump a month's worth of his $17.5 million annual salary and get a minor-league infielder in return (Andruw Monasterio).

Murphy was a big addition to the Cubs lineup last year, halting the merry-go-round at leadoff and filling the role on a daily basis. He hit .297 with an .800 OPS and 23 runs scored in 35 games for the Cubs, but ultimately was unable to help his new team get to the NLDS as the offense managed to scratch across just 2 runs in 22 innings in October.

The Murphy move was far from the only August trade that had an impact on playoff races in recent years. The Houston Astros acquired Justin Verlander Aug. 31, 2017 and watched as he went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in 5 regular-season starts in September and then pitched them right to a championship in October. Oh, and he's still the ace of their staff through this year because he had two more seasons remaining on that contract.

Last August, we saw the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees augment their offense by adding Josh Donaldson and Andrew McCutchen, respectively, with waiver deals.

As Rosenthal pointed out, the league saw 24 August trades a year ago in addition to the 48 July non-waiver deals. Now that we'll only see those pre-August moves, it could make the trade deadline much crazier. Maybe not NFL free agency wild, but a bump in activity nonetheless.

Now contending teams — including the Cubs — struck with injuries in the final two months of the regular season will be forced to fill the holes from within. 

MLB also may soon have a change in roster size, though that would not take effect until the 2020 baseball season. Rosenthal reports the 25-man roster may increase to 26 for the first five months of the year and then bump up to 28 players in September, down from the 40-man rosters we're used to seeing over the season's final month.

ESPN's Jeff Passan confirmed Rosenthal's report and added that the rumored All-Star Game Election Day will take place in 2019.

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